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To Be Young, Gifted, and a British Jew

Union of Jewish Students, University of Leeds.

One way to think of British Jewry is to focus on its slow and steady decline: 270,000 souls, demographically graying; synagogue affiliation on a downward spiral; out-marriage running at between 30-50 percent. The possibility of anti-Semitism is a constant, with 283 verified incidents reported in the first six months of 2011. Of these, 41 were categorized as "extremely violent" and 11 took place on campus. The line between despising Israel and holding Jews in contempt has been blurred beyond recognition, with the Guardian and Independent leading the way and even the once respectable Times joining in.

Relevant Links
Campus Reality  David Graham, Jonathan Boyd, Institute for Jewish Policy Research. The views and concerns of British Jewish undergraduates, as revealed in the 2011 National Jewish Student Survey. (PDF)
Elder Doves  David Graham, Jonathan Boyd, Institute for Jewish Policy Research. While supportive of Israel, Jews in Britain tend to take dovish attitudes.
An Umbrella for British Jewry  Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily. Since Israel’s early years, and well before, British Jewry has feared being faced with accusations of dual loyalty.
The Anglo Way of Jewish Leadership  Isi Liebler, Candidly Speaking. The community has a long and unique tradition of maintaining a low profile and of extolling “whispering” over “shouting.”

A more nuanced take on British Jewry, however, would view the community as a sort of gradually dying star: moribund yet illuminated. Some signs of life are as follows: The "strictly Orthodox" are growing in number. Culture is thriving. Next month there will be another Jewish Film Festival. Over the Christmas holidays hundreds will gather in Coventry for the 30th annual Limmud Conference, which bills itself as a "carnival of Jewish learning." Construction will soon begin on a new Jewish community center in northwest London. There are more kosher restaurants in London today than there were after World War II, when the Jewish population crested at about 450,000. It is not remarkable nowadays to spot young men openly wearing kippot on the London Underground—surely a sign of a community at ease. Hundreds gather every fall at the Regent's Park Bandstand to enjoy klezmer music in the shadow of London's Central Mosque. 

So how will the fate of British Jewry play itself out?  The answer to that question depends largely on the community's next generation of leaders—today's university students, comprising a miniscule 0.5 percent of the country's 1.6 million undergraduates.  Their attitudes have now been mined in a comprehensive survey conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a think-tank with loose ties to the Board of Deputies of British Jewry. As one might have expected, and as the report verifies, this younger generation is mostly pessimistic about their community's future and troubled about the way current leaders are managing its affairs.

The survey authors, David Graham and Jonathan Boyd, note that the formative experiences of today's university cohort—all born in the late 1980's and early 1990's—encompass the July 7, 2005 London bombings by Islamist terrorists and Operation Cast Lead (the 2008-2009 IDF campaign to halt Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel).

It is a generation that came of age in a "multi-cultural" England where Judeo-Christian values are no longer dominant and Islam is ascendant. Britain's Muslim population stands at 2.87 million and growing; Mohammed is the most popular name for baby boys in London. Meanwhile, Christianity is in decline: On a good month, perhaps 1.7 million, mostly older worshippers attend Church of England services. The Church's hierarchy is riddled with clergy who do not believe in God.

In this milieu, and like their cohorts elsewhere in our post-modern, post-industrial, digital age, being Jewish is mostly a personal lifestyle choice for the survey's respondents. All that being said, however, the report's findings are generally encouraging. Seventy-nine percent agree that having a "religious identity" is integral to being Jewish; 95 percent basically embrace the idea of Jewish peoplehood. Like many young Jews, however, they conflate their Jewish identity with the Holocaust (83 percent) and anti-Semitism (75 percent).

By the time they reach university, a majority will have had some formal Jewish education.  Nearly all will have been members of youth movements; about half arrive at university Jewishly observant—for example, eating only kosher meat at home. Remarkably, 27 percent are Sabbath observers. Most say their closest friends are Jewish. At the same time, of those who have had romantic relationships, just 40 percent have had exclusively Jewish partners. A clear majority of traditional respondents, but only a minority of progressives, agreed that it is important for Jews to marry other Jews.

Whatever their views, most Jewish students cluster (whether consciously or not) around a small number of universities, such as Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham, Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, and Bristol, and various London-area colleges. On campus, most students profess to be open about their Jewishness and say that "supporting Israel" is integral to their Jewish identity.  An overwhelming majority has visited Israel and, no less important, hold predominantly positive attitudes towards the country. Eleven percent of respondents, however, are indifferent, ambivalent, or negative toward the Jewish state. The key variable in attachment to Israel is the respondents' level of commitment to tradition. The more observant the student, the more emphatically pro-Israel.

And how do these students feel about British anti-Semitism?  In focus groups, students found fault with the Jewish media and establishment for overemphasizing anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Yet 42 percent nationwide say they have experienced anti-Semitism. And fully a third of Jewish students in London (where British Jewish life is centered) have experienced Jew-hatred. Indeed, a non-Jewish former head of the National Union of Students (NUS) had to be escorted away from a Manchester demonstration against tuition hikes last year when louts in the audience chanted "Tory Jew scum." This year, under different leadership, the NUS first adopted and then scrapped a range of anti-Zionist resolutions. Last week, Mike Freer, a pro-Israel Member of Parliament (yes, such a species still survives), was threatened in his London constituency offices by a Muslim crowd. While most non-Jewish university students are indifferent to Mideast issues, Jewish undergraduates prefer to keep their pro-Israel sentiments to themselves rather than risk the opprobrium of pro-Arab rabble-rousers on campus. And so, though anti-Semitism is a reality for many of these students, they wish and attempt to ignore its potency.

Perhaps it is in this context—rather than the dovish views of British Jewry generally—that we should ponder the pathetic plan by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) leadership to distribute both Palestinian and Israeli flags on campuses. The risible idea is to prove that Jewish students, too, support "freedom, justice, and equality." It will be interesting to see whether the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) begins distributing Israeli flags to prove it has come around to supporting a two-state solution.

To be fair, when University of College London President and Provost Malcolm Grant outrageously declared that campus anti-Semitism was not a problem, the UJS called on him to "stop ignoring the harmful influence of extremists." The former head of the Jewish student union at UCL said more plainly: "He knows this is an outright lie." In any event, it is left to unapologetically pro-Israel groups to proactively campaign for Israel and against Palestinian Arab intransigence.

Graham and Boyd argue that it's time to put campus hostility toward Israel into perspective. "Anti-Semitism continues to be a significant issue on campus, but it is also subtle and complex" and on the whole, a reader might conclude, students have become inured to toxic hatred of Jews and Israel.

Boyd acknowledged that Jewish students can't articulate pro-Israel sentiments without "grief." Non-Brits might read this as quintessential British understatement, but the report takes cold comfort in finding that students are more concerned about grades, relationships, and future aspirations than day-to-day anti-Semitism. The problem may be so endemic and discouraging that pondering it for too long can sap morale. Or as Boyd argues more delicately, anti-Israel hostility "should not dominate our view, not least because over-emphasizing it appears to be affecting the Jewish identities of this young generation."

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Milton David Fisher on November 7, 2011 at 8:20 am (Reply)
Since when has supporting a foreign country been part of being Jewish? Whether one supports Israel or not should be a matter of choice.
Independent Patriot on November 7, 2011 at 8:23 am (Reply)
It's not only among young British Jews that being uninvolved with pro-Israel activities is endemic. My oldest son tried to get the Jewish students' group on his college campus here in the United States to do pro-Israel advocacy, and no one wanted to join him. Even the Rabbi was useless. Instead of leading with ideas and getting others to help my son, he told him that it was up to him to come up with programs. I had to explain to my son that most Jewish people and Jewish students are not interested in pro-Israel advocacy and, as with their British counterparts, are interested mostly in grades and socializing, with a heavy emphasis on socializing. While anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses does not compare in most cases to what is happening in the EU, it is still a major and growing issue. I doubt that emphasizing it will turn young Jews away from being Jewish; that is a cop-out on the part of the adult Jewish world.

Preparing your child to handle antisemitism and defend themselves against anti-Israel propaganda is what will stop them from running away from their heritage Allowing them to live with their heads in the ground like an onion is when you loose them.
charley hoarsen on November 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm (Reply)
What will they do or think when they find out James Bond is Jewish?
seymour on November 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm (Reply)
The fictional character James Bond is not, and never was, Jewish. Perhaps Mr. Hoarsen is confusing him with "The Thing." Secondly, I object to the snotty, anglophobic tone of this article.
McQueen on November 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm (Reply)
Milton David Fisher, where in this article was it stated that support of Israel was not a matter of choice? Talk about creating a straw man. . . .
Milton David Fisher on November 7, 2011 at 5:46 pm (Reply)
Dear McQueen,

The connection between supporting Israel and combatting antisemitism was implied. Some criticism of Israel is antisemitic, but some is not. I support separation of religion and state. If Australia became an officially Christian state, I would become a second class citizen. Since I cannot support a Christian state, I cannot support a Jewish state.
Billy Kravitz on November 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm (Reply)
I'm a religious Jew, not ritualistic, yet spiritually connected. Unless we reach out to the non-believing majority, reclaim our spiritual voice, and demystify the faith, we'll always face problems like this. The Western world thinks anyone can be a Christian, but only a Jew can be a Jew. They rarely, if ever, hear anything about Jewish universality, love of humanity, or our God-given responsibility to be respectful caretakers of creation. In fact, they think we have no spiritual answers at all. Christians have that; we have "traditions." It's time to grow the membership a little, bring in some new blood. I applaud the Orthodox movement, yet feel the Reform movement is better prepared to do this. (We can always argue about our differences later on). Let people know that conversion is a very real possibility. Make them understand they'll still be British. Teach the faith. Tell them of the transfigurative nature of the Passover. Show them that "love thy neighbor" and, by Socratic extension, the whole world originated with our Unitarian Testament and not the dominant Trinitarian one. Speak of "tikkun olam" (completion of the universe). And do you know which passage I particularly value? The one in which God tells us that there are no actual strangers, "for strangers you were in Egypt before I rescued you." Thus, group experience teaches us how cruel that label is. Scripture then goes on to say that if you're stubborn and insist on labeling some as strangers, then do even more for them than for one of your own, since they expect so very much less. Life after death? Well, what do you think all that stuff about the physical resurrection is all about? We're taught not to dwell on eternal reward, since we do what is right because it is right and not in anticipation of heavenly gifts. And here's the kicker: Our way is not the only way to gain salvation, "for the righteous of all groups shall share in the world to come." Unless we universalize and promote the spiritual core of our identity, we'll be doomed to reinventing the wheel in every generation--namely, how can we make a tiny, mysterious, and misunderstood group safe among uncaring, suspicious neighbors? Do you want it to be that way? If not, change things. Thank you to Jewish Ideas Daily for providing this forum.
Raymond in DC on November 8, 2011 at 10:43 am (Reply)
Milton writes, "Since I cannot support a Christian state, I cannot support a Jewish state." You're confusing Jewish religion with Jewish peoplehood. Japan is a Japanese state and Italy an Italian state, though both include residents who are not culturally or ethnically Japanese or Italian. More significant, many people support Palestine as a state of the Palestinian people, yet oppose Israel as a state of the Jewish people. They're too obtuse to see the contradiction.
m d fisher on November 8, 2011 at 4:39 pm (Reply)
Dear Raymond, I am not confusing the Jewish religion with Jewish peoplehood. I am against ethnic nationalism. I think no nation should belong to a particular people. I think every nation should not discriminate among its citizens but should regard every citizen as equal under the law regardless of ethnicity or religion.
milton david fisher on November 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm (Reply)
I also oppose a Palestinian state, as that is more ethnic nationalism. I favor one state, which does not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of ethnicity or religion, has an integrated public school system, has separation of religion and state, and does not subsidize religious schools.
MFM on November 10, 2011 at 12:24 pm (Reply)
"I am against ethnic nationalism. I think no nation should belong to a particular people." Every nation (including Australia) belongs to its particular people (the Australians). And the Jews are quite ethnically diverse, including Jews in Israel.
David on November 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm (Reply)
All countries are made up of ethnic nationalities, Milton. Germany is made up of Germans, Mexico is made up of Mexicans, Nigeria is made up of Nigerians. Are you suggesting that all nations dissolve themselves to avoid such nationalism or only the Jewish state?
M D Fisher on November 14, 2011 at 12:46 am (Reply)
Dear Raymond, I am suggesting that all nations not discriminate among their citizens on grounds of ethnicity and religion. If a country is a Jewish state, it must discriminate in favor of Jews. I believe a country should not represent only a subset of its citizens.

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